Posted by: Mark Wollemann: On the move | September 9, 2011

I see dead people …

Ritual space

Bulgarians use public spaces to honor and memorialize their loved ones.

Around Blagoevgrad, there are walls and trees and telephone posts covered with hand-made posters that feature pictures of faces and words (in Bulgarian) that I don’t understand.

Melody and I, during our first few days here, noticed these everywhere and wondered what they were. They couldn’t be “missing persons.” So many featured older folks. They must be some sort of memorial, but we weren’t entirely certain.

What we’ve learned (and there’s still so much more to learn) is that these memorial markers go up 40 days after someone has died, and then six months, one year and three years after death. You can see some of that explained here. Or you can do your own sleuthing. But it’s a fascinating ritual that is seemingly practiced by all Bulgarians.

The reason I mention this? I had the brilliant idea of incorporating this into my “Reporting and Writing” class as a midterm exam. I’ve always thought that the newspaper obit features some of the richest story-telling a local paper can produce. The obit also gives readers the best feel for what their community was and is. My professorial idea was to have students find a good story among the folks who are being memorialized all over town. Track down their family members, friends, co-workers and produce a 1,200 word “feature” on that person. Sort of like this from a recent Star Tribune. It will give me (and the rest of the class) a sense of Blagoevgrad.

What I’m learning is that while Bulgarians are fine publicly memorializing family members, they apparently will be less free in their expression of that sentiment to a student reporter (or any reporter, for that matter). I’m up against it. I am inclined to push the students, to urge them to fight through cultural obstacles. But I also worry that this assignment might blow up in my face before I have a chance to regroup and reassign.

It’s a quandary. I love the assignment and think it could give the students a rich and rewarding reporting experience. But I might also be fighting a tradition of stoicism that could bury them in a flurry of “no, I’m not interested in talking with you about such things.”

It’s a worry.



  1. Sounds like it would make for some great storries Prof Wollemann….this a first for me, but I wanted to let you know that I have been following yours and Melody’s blogs – my eyes grow large every time I read of your adventures.
    Enjoy and Be safe..Cindy(your sister-in-law) 🙂

  2. Shades of Steve Hartman (remember him?) where he would randomly pick someone from the telephone book (hmmmm…. I guess that source has dried up!) and do a feature on them. The most mundane-appearing person turned out to be a story of much texture and depth. He frequently made me cry.

    Anyway, love both your blog and Mel’s. Looking forward to the next installments!

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